The dashing gentleman and the determined lady both pursue the secrets of the Black Rose Society. But what they discover is forbidden passion and a dangerous desire.
She had never felt so naked in her life.
Glancing furtively at the masked revelers who swarmed Vauxhall Gardens, Anna gave a discreet tug at the scandalously low-cut bodice of her favorite green evening dress. She had never worn the garment without the lace fichu, but these circumstances called for boldness.
I'm doing this for Anthony. The litany repeated in her head, playing harmony to her rising panic, as she trailed along behind the party ahead of her.
The evening had begun innocuously enough. She and her parents had accompanied some friends of her father's to the masquerade at Vauxhall Gardens. Everyone from the royal family to the poorest commoner wore a mask, adding an air of scandal to the otherwise mundane amusements. The entire park was lit with Chinese lanterns, the sounds of gaiety and music filling the air. She had been content to go along and simply observe the laughter, secure in the company of her family.
And then she had seen the ring.
Her gaze drifted to it again on the hand of one of the gentlemen she followed. A black rose crossed with a sword. It was this symbol that had given her the courage to slip away from the security of her party and follow these raucous youths down darkened paths to their lanternlit private dining area.
Coarse laughter drifted back to her from the group of Cyprians who had caught the eyes of the rakish gentlemen she pursued. It had been an easy thing to attach herself to the crowd and pretend she was just another doxy. The masks they all wore would protect her identity. And if they unmasked at midnight, she would make certain to be gone before then.
"Come in, ladies," the young man in the lead invited, with a sweep of his arm. His ring glittered in the dim light.
Sucking in a deep breath, Anna fell in line behind the gaudily dressed prostitutes. She tried not to goggle at the shocking décolletage of one woman's gown, the bodice so low that her ample breasts looked to be in danger of popping out of her bodice. Another of the disreputable females had clearly dampened her skirts, outlining her limbs in a most shocking manner. All of them wore flamboyant masks, their faces enhanced by heavily applied powder and brightly rouged lips and cheeks.
Next to the colorful lot of ladybirds, her unpainted lips and simple mask struck her as somewhat conspicuous. Part of her wanted to run away, back to the safety of well-lit paths and her father's old friends. But she couldn't leave. Not when she was so close to discovering the meaning of the symbol.
Their host blocked the door with his arm when she would have entered the dining area. "What have we here?" His mouth curved in a predatory smile. Behind his mask, his eyes glittered as he swept his greedy gaze over her body. "Aren't you a tasty-looking sweetmeat?"
His audacity struck her mute. Then he traced his fingers down her bare arm. She flinched away, her gaze falling on his ring with a cold kind of terror.
His smile became a scowl. "What's the matter, sweetheart? I'm not good enough for you?"
"Leave her be." A scantily clad doxy with brassy blond curls pushed to the front of the line. She leaned against the host and rubbed her barely clad breasts against his arm. "Can't ye see she's a new girl? I've got what a man like you wants." She held his gaze boldly, a knowing smile on her ruby red lips.
Slowly the masked man grinned, then traced a finger down the bare slope of her breast. "That you do, my beauty." He cast Anna a dismissive glance. "Go in, then."
Heart pounding with fear, she hurried into the lion's den.
Roman Devereaux lounged against one of the ornate Greek columns that framed the private dining area, pondering the madness that had possessed...